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Mayor Jean Quan passed out plates of turkey and mashes potatos with gravy at Oakland's 20th annual Thanksgiving dinner.

Oakland officials and volunteers serve Thanksgiving dinner to over 2,000 people

on November 23, 2011

In the Tuesday afternoon sunshine, a line of people formed on 10th Street outside Oakland’s downtown Marriott Hotel while inside, hundreds of volunteers—including Mayor Jean Quan—bustled back and forth in the banquet hall, preparing to serve over 2,000 people at the city’s 20th annual Thanksgiving dinner.

The dinner was hosted by the Oakland Hunger and Homeless programs, with support from sponsors like the Community Action Partnership (CAP), State Street Foundation and the Communities United Committee. All members of the community were welcomed for a free, hot meal and offered a warm winter coat on the way out.

“They treat them royally today,” said Frances Bienati, who has been volunteering at the annual Thanksgiving dinner for 11 years. She sorted and folded coats, waiting for the first diners to finish their meals and come sift through the trench coats, puffy jackets and blazers piled high on the tables in the corridor outside the banquet hall.

Bienati said she ran a restaurant in Oakland for 42 years and recognized people at Tuesday’s community dinner that she had known decades ago. “Some people here, they used to have jobs. It breaks my heart,” she said. “But at least they are getting a good meal today.”

There were over 400 volunteers at this event and many, like Bienati, are regulars—Sandra Johnson Simon, secretary of the board for CAP, has been volunteering for 10 years, LaVerne Turner with the Center for Independent Living for five, and Cherryl Lash, one of the main coordinators for the annual dinner, has been volunteering her time for three years.

But there were also newcomers. Simone Nettles, 19, was volunteering at the community dinner with the Oakland Fire Department’s Cadet program. Nettles worked in a team with nine of her classmates, changing tablecloths, laying out utensils and placing a salad and dinner roll at each place. The volunteers—along with Marriott staff members in crisp black uniforms—kept the Thanksgiving dinner running smoothly, guiding people to their seats, serving food, cleaning up empty plates and re-setting the tables for the next wave of diners.

“This is my second time volunteering,” said Theodora Marzouk, a resident of San Leandro who works in Oakland. “I like the opportunity to give back,” she said, as she helped an elderly man to his seat. She took a pitcher of pink juice and began refilling the plastic cups of three young children eating Thanksgiving dinner with their family.

Everyone who came for dinner was served a crisp green salad, a dinner roll, turkey and mashed potatoes with gravy, and pumpkin pie for dessert. Mayor Quan, in a black dress, wandered through the maze of tables shaking hands, chatting, and serving steaming plates of turkey from a platter balanced on her shoulder. Quan said she has been volunteering at the annual Thanksgiving dinner in Oakland for at least a dozen years.

Quan spoke to the crowd during dinner, praising the volunteers for their dedication to the community. She also encouraged people to give money to the Alameda County Community Food Bank, something she does every year. “I’ll give the equivalent of what I spend on Thanksgiving each year to the Alameda County food bank,” she said. “If I spend $150, I’ll give $150. It is our family tradition.”

Certain groups in Oakland have been hard hit by the tough economic conditions, Quan said, particularly low-income seniors and communities in Fruitvale and West Oakland. “This is a chance for people from all over the city to come together,” she said.

As the first group finished eating, a second wave of people filed in to the Marriott banquet hall. Without missing a beat, volunteers stepped forward to show them where to sit, many adding a cheerful, “Happy Thanksgiving!”

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